Treating Paula Abdul: An excerpt from Kiran Bhat's upcoming novel, Girar

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Treating Paula Abdul: An excerpt from Kiran Bhat's upcoming novel, Girar

May 10, 2021: Port Vila, Vanuatu

The below excerpt is from Girar, a digital streaming novel that will take place in 365 different corners of the planet. It will release from April 13th 2021 onwards until 2029, turning around the lives of two archetypes called Mother and Father. The below excerpt is told from the Father's perspective.

***

Son had left the island, but Son had not left his place in Father’s mind. That was why, even while he was on his lunch break, Father minced the chicken with the green peppers and doused the back of his throat with island cabbage, but imagined right on his other side Son, sitting there, griping with him. There was already a lack of realism to this premise. Son was not a doctor or related to the hospital in any way, and so he would not have been allowed to sit with Father at the canteen. At the same time, Father was in the habit of sitting alone, and he often lived with the fantasy versions of relatives he was unable to confront in real life. Therefore it wasn’t anything out of pattern for him to be berated by Son’s complaints in the recesses of his head.

You are so old-fashioned. You know you don’t have to eat this cabbage and chicken anymore. There’s a bakery on the other side of where we live. But you won’t buy anything from there, because it costs too much, and you’d rather make your wife do all the work in getting things for you, cooking them for you, practically feeding them to you.

Father was running out of time, and he was old enough to know it was worthless to argue with the visions in his head. Nonetheless, as Father took the stairs up to the first floor of the hospital, memories of Son were everywhere. He saw for example one of the boys wearing the same baby-blue shorts of Son’s old school uniform. He had his afro stitched and braided. Father remembered how once when Son was fifteen, he had tried to do something like that, parting his hair into what were called cornrows, something the African Americans did back then. In those days, people were not used to that style yet, so Son came home crying because the boys had made fun of him for looking like a girl.

Father couldn’t help but imagine how differently he would have reacted that day had he known that he was going to be having this lifelong problem with Son.

One of the nurses he passed on his way to the ward was carrying a takeaway box with chicken curry. This was one of Son’s favourite meals. There was a place which served it right in between their cottage and the hospital. It was just a small outcrop of bricks out of someone’s house, but Son liked to go there almost once every few days. Mother complained he would gain even more weight if he ate it so often, but Son retorted that he didn’t care.

Father wondered what it was that Son was really getting when he claimed to be going out to get chicken curry, because most of the time when he came back, he was carrying no food.

The hospital was about four or five halls of plaster, descending down the hill, with a staircase heading from the ER to the administration office, the maternity unit, and then the general ward. When Father crossed into the shed where the patients were, everyone was staring at him like a bull dressed in blue. He accepted it; he knew he looked more tired than he wanted them to perceive. Did they know already, somehow, that Son had deserted him, and with such drama? The nurses were certainly avoiding him rather than giving him their token smile-and-nod of a hello.

In this hall, there were five beds per row, and a bright-yellow curtain on the side that could encircle them if they wanted privacy. As Father made his way to his next patient, he couldn’t help but overhear the loudest conversation in the room, somewhere near that wall with the plaster chipping off, where the men in their corner of beds were chatting like a gaggle of old friends.

It wasn’t about his family.

‘I’m telling you, mistee, we have athletes good enough for the Olympics. It’s just that these mainland countries, they don’t pick us.’

‘Please, my lomie. You’re foolin’ me. Who is good enough for America?’

‘Joseph Clarke.’

‘And who is Joseph Clarke?’

‘He is my nephew.’

‘Mistee, your nephew don’t count for anything.’

All of the men laughed, as if this was how they agreed.

‘I’m telling you, he isn’t fat like me. One day he’s going to be a famous athlete. He has the looks, he has the talents, he has the money. That’s the most important thing. His parents want him to go far. They don’t have much, but they will do anything for him, like any of us would.’

Father was reaching their section of the hall where his patient was supposed to be, and he made his presence known by saying, ‘That’s what all of us are doing, us parents. Trying to make sure our children amount to something.’

None of the men had any idea what Father was talking about, but some rose to shake his hand. ‘How was lunch, dog’?’

For a while they pretended to engage, just as they pretended they would make changes to their lifestyle. Father knew the average Vanuatuan man, and those in front of him were not going to quit drinking, or eat less chicken, or take more walks—they didn’t care enough. And in a certain way, given what his family was going through, he also didn’t care whether or not they followed his advice. He wanted to get done with his shift, get back home, and sleep. He was flipping through his files while he listened to their banter, trying to find his patient, but it was hard to match the name to the bed when the name written appeared to be female and he was in the part of the ward for men. A man on his way back from the bathroom was coughing and sneezing uncontrollably.

‘Cover ’em mouth mo nose time yu sneeze,’ Father ordered.

‘Disgusting, it is,’ called one of the patients. Father could hear that this was a different voice to the ones around him. The voice was feminine, yet not quite female. Father turned around. How could he not have noticed? The patient had long hair—their own or an extension, it wasn’t clear. Their eyebrows were creased in a certain way, and almost pencilled in. Such detail to the eyelashes, such flagrant use of mascara. Not the darkest of skins for a Melanesian, certainly on the lighter side, might have been mixed. Who else but a white would have allowed their child to dress in such a way? Father looked at the name on his clipboard. The name was feminine, and also foreign sounding—Paula Abdul. The name of that Jackson sister. And yet, very clearly, on the medical transcript, it said male.

Father stared in silence, dumbstruck.

‘Wanem?’ asked the patient.

‘Are you Paula Abdul?’ replied Father, regaining an ounce of composure.

The patient flicked a hand and said ‘aye’ in a candied American accent, and the boys around them laughed and smiled. Father couldn’t help but laugh too, though he didn’t know why.

‘You are my patient today,’ he said. ‘Wanem problem blo yu?’

‘Dog’, I’m having the worst feeling in my stomach, me harem no good tumas.’ Paula Abdul wrapped those dainty arms around that bloated belly and groaned.

One of the men who wasn’t Father’s patient said, ‘Me no savay why,’ and all of the men took their turns to laugh.

‘You stap quiet,’ Father said, shaking his finger at them. Father put his two fingers together and started pressing them onto Paula Abdul’s belly. As his fingers were going up and down in certain areas, Paula Abdul said, ‘Not there, dog’, me harem no good.’

Paula Abdul had said it in the most straightforward sort of way, but one of the patients put his back out, flicked his dreads, and said, ‘Doctor, doctor, me harem no good,’ causing all of the other men to laugh.

This time, Paula Abdul shouted at them, ‘You stap quit, or I’ll take this knife, cut ’em good you.’

Father wasn’t sure if Paula Abdul had a knife anywhere near the bed, but the raised fist made it clear the words were meant. The men just looked at each other, grinning.

‘You got stomach flu,’ Father declared. The lymph nodes were puffy. There were signs of bloating and fever. ‘You ate one something, and you are getting sick.’ Father took the moment of relative quiet to address the room. ‘Eat healthy,’ he said to all of them, switching to the style of English he used when he lectured. ‘There is a reason why our ancestors ate taro and manioc. Remember your ancestors when you eat, and the bodies they have. Don’t order these Australian-style schnitzels and American-style pizzas. Get food straight from the garden, the food our bodies are used to.’ He wrote down some prescriptions for the gas, the diarrhoea, and the fever. ‘Over-the-counter stuff this is. If it gets worse, you get back.’ With a dozen patients to see in the next few hours, he didn’t have time to say much of anything else, though he couldn’t help but feel like he should have added, certain lifestyle issues can also cause problems as well. You shouldn’t be doing things our ancestors would disapprove of. You should be watching what you are doing.

As he moved on, Father imagined that if he had said such things, the men who were paying attention and observing would have hummed or nodded, or shown approval in some form or other, but Paula Abdul would have looked down, a glowing darkness to the eyes, and just like Son would have said, Excuse me? I’m allowed to do whatever I want. This is my body, and you have no right to tell me what to do. They would have fought then, and slowly but surely the anger would have wilted into melancholy. Paula Abdul would have looked away and muttered, I’d give anything to get out of this country. I’d give my body, I’d give my parts, I’d even dig up my grandmother and give away her bones. That’s how bad I want to be in America or Australia. That’s how bad I want to be me.

A nurse was serving the patients tender coconuts. Father took the opportunity to deal with one of his other patients who looked out of sorts as well. He was one of the workers from the Philippines but looked a little bit like a local, at least going by the shape of his forehead. As Father would shortly discover, he had a Negrito for a great-grandmother. Or at least that was his story. Father and the Filipino talked about a lot of other random things that Father immediately forgot. He was more concerned about the man’s health. He used his stethoscope to try to hear whatever was making his breathing hoarse and wispy. He wondered whether, given that the man was a foreigner, it could have been coronavirus.

Father noticed something in the background. The men who were talking about sports earlier were throwing a child’s football amongst themselves. It was squeaky, and so whenever it wasn’t caught, it would make a lot of noise ricocheting around the floor. As he turned around to tell them to stop, he noticed that the boys were passing the ball to Paula Abdul, the only patient with enough dexterity to catch it. Father decided against censuring the group and went back to treating the Filipino, and while he did so he could hear that no matter how high or low or wide the throw, Paula Abdul caught the ball.

Because Paula Abdul caught the ball, and did so much better than the rest of them, the boys stopped laughing. They called out, ‘Sakem ekam lo me.’ And, ‘Don’t throw it to her. You no savay win like that.’

Father turned around to look.

‘Catch, dog’?’ grinned Paula Abdul.

Father shook his head. He had finished with the Filipino and his next patient was in another part of the hospital. Before leaving, he approached the group and said, ‘You good tumas. Better than Joseph Clarke, for sure.’

Joseph Clarke’s uncle jumped to the defence of his nephew, causing a great commotion. Some patients on the other side of the ward drew their curtains. Meanwhile, the boys were complimenting Paula Abdul and telling her about their love of the game.

Paula Abdul turned to Father. ‘We know you suffer from one thing. You no need blo talem. Anyone can see it. But if you suffering; and your patients, they suffering; patients and you together, suffering. So, you take care of yourself. And then you talk us up.’

Father was taken aback. He pretended to look at his charts. He thought about making some medical commentary that would play with whatever he was just reading. But then he let his arms hang loose, charts in hand. Father wasn’t brave enough to say it: After so many years without my son at home, he came back, and I blew it.

Paula Abdul hugged him. Father didn’t want anything like that. The men were staring and cackling. It didn’t help that Paula Abdul’s shirt was riding up so that their belly was rubbing over Father’s suit. Father wasn’t sure where to put his hands, so he left them at his side. It was the most embarrassing thing. Father was this close to shoving Paula Abdul away and saying he had another patient to tend to.

But Paula Abdul said, “Me has a father, too, just like you. Me and him stop talk. I miss him, too.”

Father did miss his son, and no matter how well he had learned to keep his feelings to himself over the years, there was a part of him that wished he could have erased everything he had done over the last few days—all of it.

Father was not a religious man like Mother. He was not a delusional one, either. He knew what was possible, and what was not. For now, the least he could do was to hold Paula Abdul. It made loneliness mean nothing. The wind was whistling, the birds were tweeting, and the world was going on.

***

Kiran Bhat is an Indian-American traveller, polyglot, and author. He has been to 132 countries, lived in 19 places, and has learnt to speak 12 languages. He has written books in five different languages, and his work has been published in journals like The Kenyon Review, The Colorado Review, PANK, Cha, The Cordite Poetry Review, Eclectica, 3AM, and many other places. He tweets here .

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